Jun 12, 2012
Grassy Narrows needs justice
Alex Neve, Maude Barlow and Angus Toulouse, The Ottawa Citizen, June 11 –
It has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. Between 1962 and 1970, a pulp and paper mill in Dryden, Ont., released more than nine metric tons of untreated inorganic mercury into the English and Wabigoon rivers in northwestern Ontario. The poisoning of the rivers had a devastating impact on the First Nations who lived off these rivers and lakes. Fifty years after it began, these same communities are still paying the price. Before this environmental disaster, the rivers and lakes were a source of both food and jobs for the people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) and Wabaseemoong (White Dog) First Nations, and members of Wabauskang First Nations, with community members working as guides or as staff in commercial fishing lodges.
When the mercury dumping was discovered, the commercial fishery was closed, cutting the people off from their most important source of income. By then, many of the residents had elevated levels of mercury in their bodies and were exhibiting signs of the neurological degeneration associated with mercury poisoning.
It took more than a decade for government to provide any compensation for Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong. The limited compensation that was established was based on assurances that the mercury contamination would not last and that life would soon return to normal. These assurances have proven false. Elevated levels of mercury continue to be found in river and lake sediment, in fish, and in animals higher up the food chain. And the people of Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong continue to experience shockingly high incidence of serious health problems, including large numbers of children born with developmental disabilities, deterioration of motor control, memory loss, speech impairment, and diminishing eyesight — all of which are associated with mercury poisoning.
The federal government has denied that there is any connection between the health crisis in Grassy Narrows and the contamination of their waters. However, Health Canada long ago stopped monitoring the human health impact of the mercury contamination. Furthermore, studies by a team of “Minamata disease” or mercury poisoning specialists from Japan have called into question federal guidelines on safe levels of mercury exposure.
In a study released in 2010, Dr. Masazumi Harada and his colleagues diagnosed 139 people in Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong as having, or as likely having, a chronic form of Minamata disease. They also found conclusive or probable symptoms of mercury poisoning in almost 90 of the residents who, when first examined in 1975, had blood mercury levels that were deemed safe according to federal guidelines. Their latest study reveals that First Nations youth born long after the mercury dumping was halted are now exhibiting symptoms of mercury poisoning. In 2010, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty acknowledged that he had a “heavy responsibility” to address the concerns raised by these mercury studies. Two years later, there is no sign that the premier has acted on this responsibility.
This week, youth from Grassy Narrows arrived in Toronto after walking some 2,000 kilometres across Ontario to draw public attention to the plight of their community. They are part of a broader effort by their community to draw attention to the need to address the legacy of mercury contamination once and for all. This is not the first time that the people of Grassy Narrows have appealed for justice. After the discovery of the mercury dumping, the people of Grassy Narrows tried to negotiate redress in the form of greater control over the management of the natural resources of their territory. The province refused and instead compounded the impact through a massive expansion of industrial logging in the region.
The people of Grassy Narrows believe that large-scale clear cut logging — which has been linked to increased mercury run-off into rivers and streams — is a key factor in the persistent contamination of their territory. Today, the people of Grassy Narrows are calling for ongoing, community-run monitoring of their waters. And they want the province to commit to respect their rights as indigenous peoples to live on their land and to be able to say no to the ravages of industrial clear-cut logging. The province should listen.
Clean water and a safe, healthy environment are basic human rights. Essential in and of themselves, these rights are also indispensable to health, livelihood and, in the case of indigenous peoples like the Grassy Narrows and Wabaseemoong First Nations, the preservation of culture and ways of life. International human rights standards clearly establish that these rights should be freely enjoyed by everyone, without discrimination. After 50 years of devastating contamination of their waters, the people of Grassy Narrows are owed a debt of justice. It is the premier’s responsibility to ensure that their rights are finally respected and upheld.
Alex Neve, secretary general, Amnesty International Canada and Maude Barlow, national chairperson, Council of Canadian and regional chief Angus Toulouse, Chiefs of Ontario.